Newbie farmers

It has now been about 6 months since we chucked in our professional careers, and our comfortable beach-side lifestyle to move an hour inland and set up our lives on an operational organic farm, just outside a small rural village of barely 300 people. We officially arrived here on the 5th December last year.

It’s been one of the biggest learning curves either of us has ever faced. We’ve had to adjust to stepping out of the office and working outdoors, doing physical labour 5-6 days a week, 8 hours day. We’ve had to learn a completely new range of skills and soak up a never ending stream of new information in order to manage the tasks required of us. We had to adapt to living in a 17-foot caravan (a very comfy caravan, thanks Mum & Dad), with just enough room for our work clothes, our bed, and a computer.

We have done away with almost all of the creature comforts associated with city living – or just living in a regular house! We have no flush toilet, we have no shower or bath. We didn’t have running water in the van for the first 6 weeks. We have erected a camping toilet and shower about 15 metres from our caravan. We have set up our pantry & kitchen in the rudimentary farm shed, located abut 30 metres from our van, alongside the rats, snakes and enormous spiders. We have created a grey water system for all our fluid waste from the van and built our own composting toilet system based on Joe Jenkins Humanure Toilet. We have established a livable area around our caravan, including using the last of our finances to build a large roof above us to keep the rain at bay – providing us with some dry outdoor living space and most importantly allowing us to dry our work clothes (hard to express how essential this has been to staying both dry and sane in the wet season which has just finished). We have spread numerous wheelbarrow loads of crusher dust around our van, helping to create pathways to keep us from getting bogged on a daily basis in the heavy clay that surrounds us. We have learned to manage on an income that is one fifth of what we had been used to previously.

There have been tears, fights and sore muscles. There has also been laughter, music, joy and profound contentment. It’s been the most fulfilling period in either of our lives (a collective 75 years worth, 79 if you count Harry-years). We have the incredible good fortune to have landed on what is possibly the most beautiful farm in the area! With two of the most generous, inspiring and experienced farmers in the country. We don’t have the stress of having to make a go of this ‘farming thing’ all on our own. We just have to try and keep up with our farmers and our farm! It’s full on and its fabulous fun!

As we said before, our income is greatly reduced, however, we are blessed to currently have no rent to pay and no electricity bills. Nor do we have phone or internet bills (although limited access to both is a challenge we have struggled with). Overall our level of consumption and consumerism have been reduced and reigned in. We use much less water now, and much less electricity too. We spend much less on everything, as shops are no longer near to hand (or purse).

Our sustainable credentials are improving slowly but surely. When our roof went up, we connected a rainwater tank, and this we use for drinking, showers and watering our small garden. In the van, our sink empties directly into the surrounding landscape. For this reason, everything we put down the drain has to be completely bio-degradable and enviro-friendly. All this grey water will eventually find its way down to the creek at the bottom of our little hill. We have done away with bleaches, fly sprays, hair products, shampoos & conditioners. Everything toxic has been abandoned or replaced by something friendly to nature. This all means that we are completely unhooked from the septic and clean-water systems.

We are showering less often, especially now that it is Winter. Most days it is just too cool by the time we finish work to want to undress for an outdoor shower. I know what you are thinking…ewww, smelly! But actually, we are covered up completely, and don’t really sweat as its cooler, so actually we just don’t need to shower every day. In Summer, we showered more frequently, but used a fraction of the water we would use in our city pad. Approximately 10 litres gets both of us clean, using our bucket and ladle. We have done away with hair care – we let it take care of itself now. The natural oils keep it in good condition, which is a shock to us both. Our scalp gets a good rinse and massage with some water, but we just don’t bother with fancy shampoos anymore. That alone is saving us a fortune! We are blessed to have access to a regular shower once a week when we stop over at our friend’s place on route to TAFE. Its a luxury and a convenience we really, really appreciate nowadays.

We use far less electricity now. Primarily this is because we have moved from a 4-bedroom house to a space smaller than most people’s walk-in-robe! It doesn’t take much electricity to keep the lights going. Plus we are outdoors every single day – so we just don’t have stuff on in the van during the day much. We are up at first light and getting sleepy well before 9pm. That’s not many hours of darkness to light up. We don’t have a TV (that went a few years ago actually), and we have no internet in the van, so its mostly reading, cooking, or watching a movie before falling asleep. We use headlamps to see outside when its dark, although we do have outdoor lights. We use rechargeable batteries to keep these going strong. It’s Winter now and we stay inside the van once the sun goes down. In Summer, we stayed outside almost til bedtime.

We probably use about the same amount of gas for cooking purposes, but none for heating water.

Almost everything we eat is organic these days. On a small budget, that is a creative challenge – but as part of the farm we have access to wholesale organic produce, that means we buy in bulk a lot more now. We buy a sack of potatoes, a sack of onions. We buy 4 kilos of mushrooms because they are a good price and then we eat mushrooms in everything for as long as we can make them last. Our joke is that we have a small living space now and we buy everything big, whereas before we had a big living space and we bought small quantities.

We also get ‘farmer’s rates’ on everything we buy from the Organic Markets, so that means we get great produce at a great rate. And of course, we are fortunate beyond belief to have 7 acres of fantastic fresh produce right here whenever we need it. It’s seasonal, so you gotta take what’s going – but that how we are learning to live now – in tune with the seasons. And we are growing some of our own food just outside our van…the list is slowly growing as we convert more of our heavy clay front slope, to composted terraces… We started with a few herbs (parsley, chives, oregano, marjoram) and have been expanding each month…Some of the veggies we have grown (or are currently growing) include: potatoes, tomatoes, celery, leeks, rocket, bok choy, lettuce, shallots, garlic, zucchini and pumpkin.

So yeah, overall we are just not consuming as much stuff – and that has made it easier to live on less. But whenever we get near to the city lights, the shopping centres and the towns, the urge to purchase comes rushing back – even when we know we don’t need anything. Thankfully we just don’t have the money to waste on stuff, so we can’t give into that urge very readily. We have had some big expenses, as you always do when setting up a new life somewhere. Mostly we have had a lot of landscaping costs. We have also had to buy clothing suitable for farm work in every conceivable weather condition. But apart from that we haven’t much need for more stuff. And we don’t have room for it either!!

After 6 months on the farm, we have learned a very great deal about farming – and yet we have no illusions that what we now know is minuscule in relation to what we need to know. It could conceivably take us the rest of our lives to learn what it is we need to know to be good farmers. Rod tells us he is still learning and he’s been living on the land his whole life. That’s a sentiment farmers all around the world seem to share. It’s a lifetime of learning. Whilst we are keen to try so many aspects of farming: bees, cows, pigs, goats, fruit etc – we have decided to just focus on the vegetables for now. That’s what is making us a living. That’s what the farm does well and for us, its where our passion started. Once the pressure on our brain cells has reduced, we might take the next step into new farming ventures. or we might attract new friends to come and start new ventures on this very property. Whatever happens, it will be a wonderful adventure.

One thing we are passionate about is sharing our knowledge with people, so that we don’t all have to go through the same mistakes. That’s why we blog. Its one way to share what we are learning. That’s has been a more difficult challenge since moving to the farm, as access to the internet is not easy. We have wanted to share what we have been learning through our TAFE course this past 5 months, but we have really struggled to find the time or get the access to the internet! Life is so full. And everything, absolutely everything takes longer.

We resorted to photos to try to stay in touch through our blog and everyone seems to have enjoyed the pics. But we haven’t even had our camera’s out much this past month. We are so busy learning to be farmers, that we barely have time to share our journey anymore. But we hope to hang in there with our blog. We hope to get more internet access soon. We hope you stay with us as our journey continues. If there is something to glean from our reduced presence these past few months, it is this: starting life as a farmer is a huge under-taking. Be prepared for it to demand all your resources. Expect it to exhaust and deplete, replenish and revive you. Expect your days to be full to the brim from morning to night, and most days you are lucky to achieve the basics, because everything takes longer or goes slower. And living in the country is just like they say it is. It’s remote. Services are less available. Resources are further away. Life generally moves much more slowly. Things take more time to get to you. People visit you less often. You visit with people less often. There are blessings and challenges in both.

One thing we have learned is that farming in a commercial sense is very different from farming for personal use or running a home veggie garden. For a start, you clearly have to be a lot more organised. You need to know what veggies you are going to try to have each week and where you plan to sell it. You need to know which crops are profitable and which ones aren’t worth the trouble. You need to know what your land is capable of growing well – what is most suitable. You have to try to plant ahead of everyone else or later than everyone else. That’s the only way to make good money from farming. If you grow what everyone else is growing in peak season – you will make nothing. Although you need to do this too!

When we harvest from our personal veggie patch, its low key, its relaxed, its a few things to throw into tonight’s meal. This is very different from the energy of the commercial harvest. At Summit, its a pretty relaxed affair – but still, there is a time frame, there is urgency, there is a schedule, and there is definitely some pressure. Veggies need to be gotten in from the field as quickly as possible. The need to be harvested skillfully and packed appropriately. Also, on the commercial farm, veggies need to be picked in the hundreds, not in small hand-fulls. The volume is surprising to us newcomers. And slowly we are learning to be efficient pickers.

In fact, that’s one small milestone we have reached in our first 6 months – we have become valuable members of the team. We can’t call ourselves farmers. Not yet! But we can call ourselves proficient at some of the tasks of farming. Rachel is really starting to get on top of the seedling house management. I am getting the hang of doing the irrigation. And both of us are now basically up to speed with our harvesting. It feels good to have accomplished these things. It feels great to be able to contribute something to the farm and to Rod and Tan – to be a help and an asset. Our confidence is growing weekly. Our passion cannot be dampened even by the coldest, wettest day (like today). We love being newbie-farmers.

Don’t get me wrong, we still ache to sleep in some mornings, especially when it’s dark and cold out. We crave for a bath regularly, and often have one when we go to town. We would dearly love to have a warm, flat space where we could stretch out and do yoga easily (at least we have the shipping container, although its cold now its Winter). And it would be nice to have some more disposable income in order to get – say a massage once a week or a bottle of wine on a Friday. But really life on the farm is good, and getting better. I’d love to say we are taking to farming like a fish to water – but in reality its more like a Labrador puppy takes to water! With a few big splashes, some clunky first strokes and inevitably, lots of mess.

Thanks for joining us, sharing our adventures so far. Really the adventures are only just beginning. And that’s the most exciting part for us!

Ciao,

Michelle, (and Rachel & Harry too!)

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8 thoughts on “Newbie farmers

  1. Despite the challenges you face, the most important thing is that you’re still having fun. If you are then it’s all golden!

    I loved reading your post today and your updates – re: the whole “shower every day or you’ll be dirty” – that’s rubbish… it’s just an expectation imposed on people by society. In summer I’ll feel filthy sometimes if I’m not having my shower each day or more, but in the winter when all I do is sit at a desk all day? There’s no way I can be “dirty” after that time.

    • I have to confess to LOVING showers and baths! When they are convenient its hard for me to stay out of them. I think that’s one of the downsides of our ultra luxurious lives in so called ‘first world countries’ – there’s simply too much access to the things we want! It’s too easy to jump in the shower and stay for 20 minutes…Especially in Winter, when you probably aren’t that dirty anyway. Plus, when you are living in a big house, I find there’s is an immediate disconnect from the outside world. It’s harder for us to avoid those realities here – access to water for a shower is more challenging and time consuming. We can see and hear the beautiful natural spring stream which eventually receives all our grey water – so we cannot easily ignore the reality of what gets flushed down our drain pipe.

      I am so happy to let go of the need to be spotlessly clean, showered, groomed everyday. It’s a relief. I always liked how when you went camping, you would just let all that stuff go, forget that mirrors even exist, forget to shower, nothing needs to be ironed, hair doesn’t need grooming… It’s a much more relaxed way to exist in the world and I am LOVING it!

      As for having fun – absolutely!
      Great to hear from you Charles…I have missed you!

  2. Great to catch up on your recent months and musings . . . just found out I am being laid off at the end of June, a job I love in a program I have been part of for seven years . . . and reading your blog . . . well, reminders of ways of living, lives and journeys that come beyond the *known* sense of daily life. Big hugs to you both and celebrations for what you are doing and learning together!

    • Hey lovely, actually i just caught wind of your news on FB. Sounds like a sad moment for you 😦 big congratulations on all you have achieved there in those 7 years…they say 7 years is a spiritual decade – have you heard that before? I wonder where the Tao will take you next??

  3. I’ve enjoyed reading about your journey and looking at your pics, I wondered how it was going lately, well done on all of your achievements 🙂

    • Thanks very much 🙂 I think that’s the wonderful thing about time, you can look back and really feel you have made some strides – there have certainly been times where we have felt overwhelmed, confused, tired and yet we have done and learned a lot and everyday move closer to our dream of returning to a harmonious relationship with the earth. We are so blessed to have met Rod & Tan, who support, teach and challenge us and have given us a place to call home.

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